The Limits of Empathy

BY Azriel Re'Shel & Mark Heley
The Limits of Empathy
Why do we feel more empathy for those who are most like us?

Have you ever wondered why when a tragedy occurs close to your home, or community, that it is much easier to feel strongly than when a similar event happens far away, or to people who seem ‘different’?

For example, many people have questioned why in the West, we readily change our facebook profile pictures, or post passionately on social media about our grief, outrage and anger when a terrorist attack happens somewhere familiar like Paris, or Florida. Yet, when a similar outrage occurs claiming as many or more victims in Baghdad, or Syria, we remain silent.

Do some lives count for more than others?

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is a basic human quality. Empathy allows us to feel with – and for – our family, our friends, and our community, sharing in their trials and celebrating their joys. But is there a ceiling to this most basic of human characteristics?

How come we can be so deeply understanding and heartfelt with some, and then so insensitive, cold, or even filled with hate, for others?

To understand that empathy has limits, we need to have a clear grasp of what exactly it is.

There are many misconceptions about empathy and yet it is one of the most important of qualities we can have for connecting with others, having good relationships and perhaps, most importantly, creating a fair and equal world that works for all.

Dr Helen Riess, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School has devoted her career to researching the neuroscience of emotions. She specialises in empathy and trains psychiatrists, medical students, and doctors to have greater empathy. Her definition is a good starting point.

To be seen and heard, and to have our needs responded to. That’s the essence of empathy. – Dr Helen Riess

Is there a ceiling to one of the most basic of human characteristics?Is there a ceiling to one of the most basic of human characteristics?

The Biology of Empathy

There is also a strong biological basis to our empathic responses. When we feel many forms of empathy, the hormone Oxytocin is released. Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, creates homeostasis in the body, bringing the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of our beings into balance.

But Oxytocin in this context also has what can be seen as a dark side: while it brings us closer to those we love, it also reinforces a tribal mentality and tends to further separate us from those we perceive as ‘outsiders’.

Depending on the context, it can also hinder trust, reduce cooperation, or trigger negative feelings like envy and schadenfreude.


Oxytocin and Dishonesty

While some popular science reporting has cast Oxytocin as a ‘moral molecule’ that is at the core of all our virtues – those wonderful qualities of trust, empathy, love, and cooperation – one study has shown that Oxytocin also makes us more likely to be dishonest to those outside our group. Essentially, Oxytocin encourages us to value connection over honesty.

There is a default neurological patterning of humans, re-enforced by the Oxytocin pathways in the brain, which leads people to see ‘their’ tribal members as more important, more human and more real than those who are distant from them.

“Some people may say that (Oxytocin) is still the ‘love hormone,’ because they love their in-group, but these people are in a very minimalistic setting and they don’t know the others in their group,” said Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam, who published the study on dishonesty  “Oxytocin is causing a more general shift from self-interest to group-interest. It’s simplistic and wrong to call oxytocin a ‘moral’ molecule.”

The problem with this is that in today’s world, we no longer live in a ‘minimalistic’ tribal society where space and distance separate different cultures. Whether we like it or not, we live in a global village that is interconnected, interdependent, and becoming increasingly so. More than ever, we have the possibility to become one global nation, yet as this vision of oneness spreads, correspondingly, the racism and polarisation of other groups is also on the rise.

We live in a global village that is interconnected, interdependent and becoming increasingly so.We live in a global village that is interconnected, interdependent, and becoming increasingly so.

Bridging the ‘Empathy Gap’

For many people, the problems in the world today seem too distressing and insurmountable. We can feel powerless in the face of so much that appears to be wrong in the world. Compassion burnout is becoming a common scenario, and more and more people are complaining of being too sensitive to withstand, and face, the pain of the world.

For sure, empathy has limits. Feeling empathy for a person who has killed a family member, or bombed your neighbourhood is not an easy thing to do. Yet, when we separate and judge others, we also disconnect. It becomes them and us, you and me, right and wrong, and moves away from everything that unites us and that we share. If you believe in a common humanity, and that our ability to love, bleed, feel is essentially the same- this is where we must extend ourselves beyond the limits of our primate biology.

To overcome the neurological hardwiring of ‘tribal empathy’, we need to teach and learn empathy, not just to expect to feel it.

It is not enough to feel guilty if we do not feel it the same when a terrible bombing somewhere in the Middle East happens, compared to an outrage closer to home. What we need to do is to realise that a bridge needs to be consciously built over the ’empathy gap’. We need to take a moral leap from the discriminatory bias of the brain’s chemical rewards into learning a more universal empathy and compassion that serves the world we actually live in, better. This can only be done through culture and education. It will not arise out of biology alone.

Compassion burnout is becoming a common scenario.Compassion burnout is becoming a common scenario.

Moving beyond the World of Separation

Otto Scharmer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Co-founder of the Presencing Institute, has been looking at the core issues facing our conflicted world. We live in a turbulent time that seems beset by ever increasing conflict and the risk of chaotic collapse. If we cannot control the ‘stream of disruptions’ as Otto Scharmer puts it, from terrorist attacks, climate disruption, financial instability, and the social consequences of extreme wealth polarisation, so what can we control?

Scharmer believes that we can control our response to these events. In doing so, Scharmer has identified three essential options:

1. Muddling Through

‘Basically same old, same old. More meetings. More declarations. More empty words.’

2. Moving Apart

‘Let’s build a huge wall that separates “us” from the “them.” Let’s practice the values of freedom, equality, and solidarity inside these walls, and let’s do the opposite outside of them.’

3. Moving together

‘Acknowledge our own role in generating the problem, and therefore our responsibility to co-create a solution.’

In terms of offering a solution to the root cause of the empathy problem, only the third option is really viable. ‘The first view tries to deny that the system is broken. The second view says OK, the system is broken, but it has nothing to do with us. “THEY” are the problem, not “us,” so let’s put a wall between us and them.’ We have to see ourselves as the place where changing things can begin.

We must acknowledge our own role in generating the problem.We must acknowledge our own role in generating the problem.

Presencing vs. Absencing

At the heart of this conflict, according to Scharmer, are two ‘clashing mindsets’.

One is shaped by the field of ‘Absencing’: that is, the field of ‘building up walls’, by enacting a social architecture of separation. This field thrives from the innate biological biases that we experience and feeds them.

The other by ‘Presencing’: that is, the capacity of co-sensing and co-shaping the future by enacting a social architecture of connection. This future is one that we can claim if we choose it and move toward becoming one human race in practice, as well as in theory.

The real battle of our time is not between religions, and also not between ISIS and Western countries. The real battle of our time is between the forces of ‘Absencing’ (economies of fear and destruction), and the forces of ‘Presencing’ (economies of courage and creation). It’s a battle that takes place across all levels of systems. – Otto Scharmer

Here is a video from the MIT online course ‘Transforming Business, Society, and Self’ where Scharmer explains his ideas in detail.

According to Scharmer what we need is a fundamental shift in worldview to break out of the current paradigm of Absencing, to create a new system from the perspective of Presencing. However, we don’t have to wait for someone else to do this. The shift can begin within each person, and then spread out to communities, nation states, and then the world, or as Scharmer puts it,

The one shift that now matters most is the shift of the heart. – Otto Scharmer

Instead of tribal empathy and selective outrage, somehow we must rise to the challenge of moving into planetary empathy and universal compassion. So how exactly can we do this?

Fostering connection

The more we focus on our similarities, on what unites us, not what separates us, the more we can connect with others, even those who appear seemingly poles apart in every way.

Deep listening can help relieve the suffering of another person. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. – Thich Nhat Hanh

We must rise to the challenge of moving into planetary empathy and universal compassion.We must rise to the challenge of moving into planetary empathy and universal compassion.

Is Compassion the key to Universal Empathy?

“From my own limited experience, I have found that the greatest degree of inner-tranquillity comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes. Cultivating close, warm-hearted feeling for others puts the mind at ease. This gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the ultimate source of success in life. We can strive gradually to become more compassionate, we can develop both genuine sympathy for others’ suffering and the will to help remove their pain. As a result, our own serenity and inner-strength will increase. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.”  – His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Helping others gives us connection, meaning and purpose. The paradox is that giving actually gets you more and studies are proving this. Service to others is how we bridge the ’empathy gap’ and overcome the limits of empathy. A world that works for everyone awaits.

Compassion is the radicalism of our time. – His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Also read  Nobody is Born a Terrorist.

Feature Image: Artist Unknown

ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY Azriel Re'Shel & Mark Heley
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4 years ago

I have been blessed with this gift that I didn’t even know the name of until recently. Strangers will come up to me and after talking for a short while will divuldge their deepest secrets. It’s so wonderful to be able to see the relief these people get after getting these things off their shoulders. However, I don’t agree with you turning this article into a democratic spokesman! You are painting a picture that specifically uses Republican ideals as examples of nonempathetic views. Choosing to use building walls, suggests that anyone who supports walls for borders couldn’t possibly be an empath is not only wrong it is extremely judgemental. I just don’t believe that you should slip your political ideals into your explanation of what an empath truly is. I could use some ugly things about the democratic party as to why they are not empathetic, but I know that is simply stupid and shouldn’t be a part of this.

Trevor Gillett
Trevor Gillett
5 years ago

I don’t think brotherly love would have stopped Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot in their tracks of destruction .
Nor will it stop, or even control, radical Islamic jihadis.
That is today’s serious problem which is not being addressed rightly.
If the NWO are meddling in the mix to enhance stage 2 (above) controls-then that needs sorting out first.
An almost impossible task.

Lacksley Tau Madya
Lacksley Tau Madya
6 years ago

Looks like love has again become the answer. So now, as i noted from the article, we need to learn of love. The real love, unconditional love. Not the “philia” or brotherly love…which may be oxytocin-connected, lol. Not “eros” or romantic love, which is also shallow and oxytocinic/selfish. Instead, “agape”…the unconditional one. The gap bridger. And as far as facts are concerned, only God, Our Heavenly Father, understands is and is His character so much that He Himself is called love. So…we just have to ask Him what this thing called love really is coz it keeps popping on top of our solution list. This probably will be by studying His words in HIS WORD.

Aspasia Holley
Aspasia Holley
6 years ago

I feel what is missing is respect. You don’t have to agree with everyone but you do have to respect everyone. If you respect yourself the earth and living things then respecting people should come easily. Once people feel respected they can relate to each other with ease. Love in any language, straight from the heart, pulls us together never apart! So much of our human history has been lost. The library at Alexandria. Mayan texts, religious artifacts all destroyed because they were not respected. We don’t have to agree , but where’s the respect? We need to mature and evolve into respectful beings. Most animals display more respect than we do. Why? Ego? Control? Lack of it? Sad!

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